The Biden White House is reportedly trying to rein in the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, whose social media trolling of the Chinese government in recent weeks has become increasingly combative.
According to NBC News, Biden aides have asked Emanuel to stop mocking Xi Jinping online over China’s economic woes and the removal of several high-profile officials. As one anonymous White House official drily put it, the tweets were “not in keeping with the message coming out of this building.”
Emanuel’s sarcastic criticism of the Chinese government and Xi has predictably irritated Beijing, and that has been undermining the administration’s efforts to stabilize the deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relationship. As one administration official said, “It just fights what we are doing there in the region.” A former administration official quoted in the report was blunter: “They’re trying to calm things down and to have the ambassador to Japan attack the Chinese? It’s stupid.”
Emanuel was always a curious choice for a prominent diplomatic post, given his record as a crude, knife-fighting political operative, but in recent weeks he outdid himself with his trolling comments about China. When the then-defense minister, Li Shangfu, had not been seen in public for several weeks, Emanuel tweeted a mocking reference to Agatha Christie’s "And Then There Were None" as he called attention to the growing list of top Chinese officials removed from their positions over the last few months.
This briefly earned the ambassador some favorable coverage back home, including a report in The Wall Street Journal last week that billed him as a “warrior diplomat,” but like the so-called wolf warrior tactics that Emanuel has been imitating it ended up backfiring on him.
The ambassador’s social media antics have done nothing to advance U.S. interests, and it is hard to see how it benefits Japan or the U.S.-Japanese relationship to have our ambassador in Tokyo flinging insults at a neighboring country. As the NBC News report said, a “second administration official said for Emanuel to make these comments makes no sense and does not advance U.S. strategic goals with China or with the Asia-Pacific region.”
The U.S. doesn’t send its ambassadors abroad so that they can play at being the ugly American for online clout, but lately that seems to be what Emanuel thinks his job is.
It was a mistake to appoint Emanuel as an ambassador, and it was even worse to send him to a region where tensions are already high enough without having a top U.S. official throwing rhetorical bombs every week. Diplomats don’t have to be quiet or boring, but they do need to be professional and responsible in what they say because they aren’t just speaking for themselves. The White House is right to get Emanuel back in line. It remains to be seen if he will stay there.
Emanuel’s public attacks on China illustrate the limited utility of aggressive, hawkish posturing. Mocking Xi and the Chinese government over their current difficulties is juvenile at best, and to the extent that it contributes to further mistrust and hostility it can have real consequences for the bilateral relationship that can undercut U.S. policies and cause damage to U.S. and allied interests.
While Emanuel may not take his responsibility seriously, representing the U.S. overseas is not a game. Especially when it concerns powerful rival states, diplomats need to take extra care in what they say, how they say it, and where they say it. They certainly shouldn’t be freelancing with pointed public attacks on the rival’s leadership because it amuses them.
Making playground taunts of foreign leaders may seem harmless enough, but such slights help to erode goodwill between governments and provide fodder to hardliners in the other country that thrive on contempt and anger. Emanuel may imagine that he is boldly “calling out” the Chinese government for its failures, but it doesn’t hurt their government to have an obnoxious foreign diplomat attacking them in public.
If anything, it is useful to their propagandists to have someone like Emanuel as a foil. All that it does it make the work of real U.S. diplomats that much harder, and ultimately that means that the U.S. ends up absorbing higher costs down the road.
When U.S. diplomacy is successful, it secures U.S. interests in other parts of the world at the lowest possible cost. It can be challenging and sometimes dangerous work, and it is almost never glamorous, but when it is done right it can achieve far more through negotiation and compromise than can be achieved by force, threats, and denunciations. Emanuel is the product of a political culture that prizes the latter and hates the former, and so it isn’t surprising that he is not suited at all to the task of being a diplomat.
One of the weaknesses of U.S. diplomacy is the selection of unqualified political appointees for ambassadorial roles. No other major government hands out ambassadorial posts on the basis of political cronyism and donations. As a result, they typically avoid the embarrassments and scandals that come from being represented by people that have no training or aptitude for diplomatic work.
There may sometimes be some value in having political allies of the president in a foreign capital, but most of the time it does little to help advance U.S. interests. In some cases, it can work against them. It is good that the Biden administration is trying to get one of its loose cannons under control, but it would be much better if we had a system in which only career diplomats served as our ambassadors in every country.
There is a legitimate role for criticism of other governments in the practice of U.S. diplomacy, but it has to be part of a coordinated policy aimed at securing real benefits for the American people. Trolling the Chinese leadership over their internal problems just antagonizes their government and achieves nothing of value. Before sounding off in public, an ambassador or any other U.S. official needs to ask what purpose is being served by the criticism and whether that is the smartest way to respond.
Does a public attack bring the U.S. closer to advancing its interests, or does it create an additional obstacle that makes that more difficult? Obviously, Emanuel didn’t bother to ask those questions.